Philosophy professor presents lecture on racial justice

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 10:32pm

Dr. Charles Mills discusses racial justice at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday afternoon.

Dr. Charles Mills discusses racial justice at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Hannah Yoo/Daily

About 200 students, faculty and community members came to Rackham Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon to hear Charles W. Mills, a distinguished philosophy professor at the City University of New York, speak on the concept of racial justice and why it has been historically ignored within the field of philosophy.

Mills was featured as the guest speaker of the 2019-2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values sponsored by the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy. The Tanner Lectures are funded by Obert Clark Tanner, a late philosophy professor who hoped the series would contribute to an ongoing dialogue on human morality. The University was the first to host a Tanner Lecture and is one of nine institutions worldwide to participate in the tradition.

University President Mark Schlissel lauded the lecture series as an opportunity to consider important issues demanding our intellectual attention. 

“With Dr. Mills, we have a pioneering scholar who has added new dimensions of thought to the examination of human values,” Schlissel said. 

Mills opened by framing his lecture with the question of why racial justice has been so rarely addressed in Western, and particularly American, political philosophy when justice is a main idea of debate within the discipline. To lay the groundwork of his argument, Mills explained the theories of classical liberalism, a set of ideals from the Enlightenment era advocating for free markets, rule of law, private property, individual freedom and equality based on free trade.

As Mills explained, classical liberalism was the dominant political ideology of modern Western countries including the United States prior to the 20th century. Classical liberals claimed to break from oppressive, undemocratic political systems such as feudalism, a hierarchical medieval-era system in which peasants worked on the lands of nobility, and absolutism, a belief in the absolute power of a king who owned by divine right. 

While Mills said liberalism is a great idea in theory, he noted the ideals of it have not been carried out in practice. He noted freedom and equality have exclusively been the rights of certain members of society, while others, such as people of color and women, have been left out. Mills said the conventional narrative portrays modern Western society to be more egalitarian than it truly is.

“We need to remember most Western European states at one time or another had empires — British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian — in which non-Europeans, indigenous peoples, in some cases, African slaves were systemically subordinate,” Mills said. “Together, these Western countries ruled undemocratically over the vast majority of humanity.”

With these considerations in mind, Mills said classical liberalism has historically been both a “patriarchal” liberalism, supported by male gender domination, and “racial” liberalism, underwritten by white racial domination. Yet, Mills said the philosophy discipline has done little to address these historical biases.

According to Mills, part of the problem with the philosophy field is that it is predominantly white. He acknowledged his claim is controversial as some say philosophy isn’t affected by race because it supposedly theorizes about the general human condition. However, Mills said this argument misses the experiences and issues specific to people of color.

 Mills said a consequence of non-diverse academia is that the education system ignores certain aspects of history. For example, Mills told the audience that Japan, one of the few non-white countries in the post-World War I diplomatic council the League of Nations, advocated for a racial equality clause in the Treaty of Versailles. However, the other countries rejected the proposal.

When Mills asked the audience how many people knew about the unsuccessful racial equality clause, only a handful of people raised their hands.

“This is a prestigious, very well-known university,” Mills said. “You need to ask yourself, what does this say about the education system … and the broader history of colonialism?”

Mills spent much of his talk criticizing the theories of John Rawls, a 20th-century American political philosopher. In his book “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls proposed the idea of distributive social justice, which expanded upon the social contract theory developed by Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

According to social contract theory, individuals in a state agree to give up their freedoms and be governed by the state in exchange for security. Rawls added onto this theory through the thought experiment of a “veil of ignorance,” which hypothesizes that a person, before they are born, has the opportunity to create an ideal society. 

However, the person has no knowledge of who they will be in this world. Because they do not know if they will be a part of the privileged class or not, Rawls claims people will create an objectively just society out of self-interest in case they are born without certain privileges.

According to Mills, Rawls’s theory does not apply to the U.S. because Rawls sees the country as one with racism instead of as an inherently racist society. However, Mills said Western societies have historically been racist because race affects the basic structure of these societies, from the economy to the main political and social institutions.

Instead of theorizing about what an ideal world would look like, Mills believed racial justice should consider and acknowledge racist histories and focus on corrective justice. According to Mills, corrective justice entails actions such as radical revision of the prison-industrial complex and perhaps even a consideration of reparations. 

Mill’s revision of the Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, under the lens of corrective justice, would aim to repair historically racist structures. 

“As a white person, you ask yourself, I’m doing this thought experiment … let’s say I’m a Black woman in a ghetto in South Side Chicago, or let’s say I’m a Latino somewhere in southwestern United States or I’m a Native American on a reservation,” Mills said. “What structures, what policies would I want to see put in place to make sure as much as I can that I’m not radically handicapped?”

Following his talk, Mills opened the floor to questions from the audience. 

The first person to speak in the Q&A portion claimed Ann Arbor is a reverse racist and reverse sexist community that discriminates against white males like himself. When people started clapping after he said he planned to leave the country because of this discrimination, he became angry and left the event. 

Several audience members asked Mills how to incorporate discussions of racial justice into the classroom, both in college courses and in secondary schooling. Mills said efforts should be made not only to have dedicated courses to race theory but also to center considerations of identity.

“See how race can be incorporated into the curriculum … because it’s not as if you’re distorting the material,” Mills said. “Because race permeates everything.”

Rackham student Gabrielle Peterson and the rest of the Racism Lab, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, attended the event together. She said Mills’s point about the lack of diversity in academia resonated with many of them. 

“Mills’s discussion of the demographics within research bodies in philosophy that influence and inform the misrepresentations of Black people and other minorities was extremely helpful in rethinking and reflecting on our own experiences in our respective disciplines,” Peterson said. 

Jessica Castellani, a graduate student at the University of Toledo, drove to the event with her classmates and her professor to hear Mills speak. Castellani said she is taking a class on critical race theory and has been reading Mills’s work in class.

Castellani said she talked to classmates about the audience member who brought up reverse racism. She said she believes his anger is a product of the fear of having his rights taken away. 

“I wondered what Mills’s response would have been to the person who asked what we do about people — specifically white males — feeling as if they were losing some rights,” Castellani said. “It can be scary if there are laws that are going to change your life, but if you are afraid, then that’s the experience that people of color for a long time. I think those fears should honestly go away if you have empathy for other people.”

Tad Schmaltz, philosophy department chair at the University, said though he had hoped for a larger turnout, he enjoyed Mills’s talk and wishes more people had heard his message. 

“I think he’s right about the basic point that in political philosophy, there hasn’t been a consideration of issues of racial justice,” Schmaltz said. “And that’s a big oversight, given the deep history of racism in the United States. So I think it’s a very important point, and I think he made it well.”

Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at cmhao@umich.edu.